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02 FEBRUARY 2015
Meetings suck. Fix them with 6 easy steps

by Mike Stopforth: Entrepreneur and investor. Sometimes writer and speaker. Exploring how we lead, and how we should lead, in an increasingly complex world.

“I hate meetings.” The most frequently spoken words at Cerebra. Closely followed by “Let’s have a meeting.”

Meetings are widely considered an abominable waste of time. And yet, we still have them. We still have them because despite all the wondrous technology at our fingertips we haven’t (yet) developed a comparable replacement for real human interaction. The value of the verbal, non-verbal and environmental cues of a face-to-face engagement are invaluable.

Meetings are necessary, but meetings are also undeniably broken. In a business like ours where time is literally money meetings that are surplus to requirement are nothing short of destructive.

Now before I come across as sanctimonious we haven’t nearly fixed this problem ourselves. This is as much confessional as it is suggestive. These are a few practical steps I’m taking (we’re taking) and I hope you can improve the value of your meetings with them in mind.

1. Have an agenda

As quickly as we’ve lost suits, ties and oak panelled walls, we’ve discounted the value of an agenda. Our management and board meetings follow a fairly strict agenda and are minuted accordingly. While I don’t think a comprehensive written agenda (as in a Word or Excel document) is critical for a successful meeting, starting every meeting with the words “we’re here to achieve X” or “the point of this meeting is to decide on Y” is. Begin with the end in mind, to quote Covey.

2. Vary time allocations

Parkinson’s law is the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. If you allocate 60 minutes for a meeting, chances are you’ll fill it. If you allocate 30 minutes for the same agenda, I’d wager you’d achieve the same results 80% of the time. So take it a step further and book 25 minutes for most of your meetings, be clear on what you want to achieve and be amazed at how often you get there.

3. Limit attendees

I attend too many meetings with 8 or 10 people in attendance, the majority of which contribute very little value and derive even less. I believe it’s nigh impossible make quick decisions or encourage accountability with more than 5 or 6 people in a meeting; it’s too easy to hide with more. Invite as many people as you need to achieve your primary agenda.

4. Ditch the tech

This is a contentious one, especially considering my reliance on my phone and Mac, but leaving both outside a meeting on my desk has two notable effects:

Firstly, I find it much easier to concentrate on what is being said in the meeting and I tend to add a great deal more value. I can actually listen, pick up on non-verbal cues, and I retain what is said far better.

Secondly, because I’m addicted to my phone and Mac, I tend to want to move things forward. This results in significantly shorter meetings.

This is a big point for me. I joined EO in 2013 and we (8 entrepreneurs) meet once a month for four hours. We do not allow phones in that session, at all. Short of an unthinkable family tragedy, there are very few other things that cannot wait 2 or 3 hours – we’ve just gotten into the habit of believing they can’t. The value of that non-tech time is astonishing.

5. Leave a seat open

Like all great business leaders, Jezz Bezos has his quirks. Reportedly one of his more effective quirks is forcing staff to leave a chair open at every meeting to represent “the customer”. An excerpt from a Forbes article describing Bezos’ No. 1 Leadership Secret:

Jeff Bezos’ managers at Amazon find him formidable enough. But the figure that overwhelms their lives goes by the internal nickname “the empty chair.” Bezos periodically leaves one seat open at a conference table and informs all attendees that they should consider that seat occupied by their customer, “the most important person in the room.”

What a great idea. This conscious and deliberate acknowledgement of the role the customer plays (unbeknownst to them) is not only pivotal to Amazon, but clearly producing results. While the customer may not be as critical a consideration for every meeting, every meeting has an impact on someone outside the room. Leave a chair open to acknowledge them.

6. Encourage presence

While we seldom have a problem with meeting attendance at Cerebra, we frequently have a problem with meeting engagement. One way to make sure people have actually arrived and are indeed ready to tackle the task at hand (apart from my earlier tech-related tip) is to employ another simple trick I learned through EO. The “one-word barometer” encourages meeting hosts to begin the discussion by asking everyone to state one word to describe where they’re at.

*Cue Kumbaya melody*

Laugh all you like, this works. It forces everyone in the meeting to think for a second about what they’re feeling, where their attitude is at, and avoids beginning meetings in an already exclusionary fashion. It helps to end the meeting the same way to examine how people have changed (or not). Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

Cerebra is an integrated strategic communication agency that builds, engages and activates communities around brands. Visit our InfoCentre or website.

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